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Due to the fact that no library can afford to purchase all the relevant information needed by its users numbers of regional, national and international cooperation schemes have been brought in place to facilitate document delivery among libraries.
The exponential growth in the production of knowledge and the rising costs of books and journals have made it more and more impossible for the individual library to purchase all the relevant information. The effect has been that the libraries have become more and more dependent on interlending in order to fullfill the requirements of their users.
The fact that the users normally have to order the document on the basis of a bibliographic description, an abstract or a review and as well have to wait days if not weeks or even months for the document generates lots of work for the libraries and it is a well known fact, that a relatively large number of interlent documents actually never reaches the user - they don´t bother to pick them up, the have passed their exams or they have proceeded in their research etc.
From the users point of view interlending and document delivery is nothing but the second best service. The user will normally expect that required information is available when visiting the library. As mentioned earlier this will more and more seldom actually be the case.
Furthermore the developments in the other media - such as television, internet, WWW etc. - create the expectation, that information has to be available instantly. In other words the user will expect the information to be accessible now. What is not accessible now is simply not worth considering - because there is so much more stuff around!
One of the more significant characteristics of the library community has been the thrive towards free access to information for all - that is no money between the library and the user. No matter how much I personally can support this vision, this has been mixed up and practised in the cooperation between libraries. I have allways wondered why precisely the cooperation between libraries should be an isolated island in business. Libraries acquire all other services for money. They buy staff, they buy books, journals, databases, technology, cleaning and they buy document delivery services from commercial vendors - the only case, where this is not the case is in the interlending relations between libraries. Why do I elaborate on this?? That is because this fact has an importance when were are discussing the possibilities offered by the development of electronic publishing.
The reluctance or even resistance to operate on a cost recovery basis in interlending has had numerous odd effects. For instance it is still very common to see librarians practice the sport of localising a document in another library, where they can acquire the document for free instead of ordering the document from a commercial document supply center where they have to pay. The result is that a lot of staff costs are spent for getting documents for free. That is not very rational in an economical sense and usually the user has to wait longer than necessary for the documents - but anyway it keeps librarians emplyoed - so far! Besides - and that is also a part of the picture - this is a pride of the profession - to solve "difficult" problems!
Now we are witnessing that exactly the free of charge interlending - is becoming a major obstacle to the development of fullfilling the user demand for information access instantly.
A number of publishers offer consortia - if their purchase power is big enough - access to their whole range of journals - that is every member of the consortium gets electronic access not only to the journals currently subscribed to but all the journals. As we all know the library currently subscribes only to those journals that they on any specific time of date can afford, and there will as well be a number of other journals of the specific publisher the library occasionally will have to interlend. Such a consortium agreement will give the library and therefore also the user extended access - that is better service - and reduce the costs - that is staff costs and document delivery costs - in interlending procedures. The costs for this is an in my opinion usually modest increase in payments to the publisher.
What we will witness is a decreasing specialisation among libraries: the purchase of whole packages of journals has the effect that a given library suddenly will be in the position, where they can provide service in other scientific disciplines.
Furthermore we will see an increased competition among libraries: the above development will push the competition between libraries due to the fact the purchase deals with publishers often can be made in such a manner, that the library can resale documents on a pay per view or pay as you go basis. As a matter of fact libraries can develop into local of regional document delivery centers on a commercial basis.
However there are several obstacles to this development.
Firstly we have the ever present funding problem. Entering consortia requires initial investments in licenses and IT. Here we face the problem, that most libraries at the beginning of the year have allocated nearly 100% of their funds to the day to day operations and services - which means that there are little if any space for decisions during the course of the year. In the rapid changing environment of electronic publishing this is a very dangerous thing to do.
Secondly libraries are reluctant in entering consortia agreements where publishers impose payments for off consortia delivery of documents - being either in electronic or paper format.
Here we are at the heart of the matter. Due to the long tradition of not for fee based delivery of documents among libraries many libraries stand back and refuse to join such agreements despite the fact that it will benefit the local users - which after all should be the primary users. But the tradition of close cooperation among libraries and the coherent professional culture in the library community often blurrs which users actually are the primary users - is it the local researchers and student or is it the other libraries or even collegues??
The effect is that the not for fee based services between libraries has become a sacred cow and is an obstacle to the delivery of up to date services to the users! Let us for a moment imagine, that cost recovery in interledning between libaries were the normal procedure. Then it would be no news and no problem, that the publisher would claim payments for delivering documents out of a consortium to other libraries. It that case there would be a real incentive in entering cooperative purchasing shemes - that is consortia - in order to benefit not only the local users but also the other participating libraries.
The fact is, that the developments of consortia on regional, national and even international levels would have the following positive effects:
There are off course also additional expenses involved in these operations. Libraries has to establish the service and invest in the hard- and software required to perform the service, pay additional license fees etc - but that can be done in cooperation as well!
Firstly the libraries have to change their daily operations significantly. There is significant potential savings and at the same time improved service if the library can base their operations and services on electronic only, where that applies. That is whenever there is an electronic version of a scientific journal the library should organize its operations, work processes and services in such a way that the print edition should just not been handled - that is: not included in the library collection. In short: reducing the library "paper work" offers unique opportunities for improved service and reduced costs in the library operations. When the level of electronic information offered to users has reached a critical mass there will be significant savings in customer services and the many procedures associated herewith - ie registration of loans, photocopying, overdue notices etc. As a matter of fact a lot of the customer service is outsourced - for free - to the users!!
And the good news here is that exactly the development towards more electronic information requires and at the same time offers unique possibilities of library cooperation based on the new technologies and new services. No single library can develop this critical mass by itself - on the contrary - this requires cooperation, building of consortia, cooperation in handling large storage systems, building and maintaning intrfaces etc.
Furthermore cooperation between libraries has to based on the fact that everything costs. Presently a number of national regulations as to library cooperation are obstacles to this development. National library authorities should be aware of the fact that the long tradition and regulation of subsidized or even free of charge document delivery inside the library community has developed into a dysfunctional system now preventing development of modern services based on fullfilling user demands on instant access to information.
If the libraries wants to enable instant user access to as much information as possible library managers has to take a more holistic approach to the library operations in order to overcome existing organisational structures and cultural obstacles.
The developments in electronic publishing and the new models offered by publishers displays a number of opportunities if library managers dare take the necessary decisions. That could be by making funds available for purchasing licenses by reducing staff costs in the core library work processes. Increased user access to information instantly will very quickly reduce the demand for staff not only on document delivery operations from own stock but also in the interborrowing operations.
If the library management is uncapable of making these decisions and changes sooner or later other libraries or commercial information providers will take over.
The positive scenario is where libraries regional, national and international are establishing a number of overlapping consortia where they can provide there users a enormous virtual collection of scientific information, where every user has electronic access to everything. In this scenario the concepts of lending, borrowing and interlending are obsolete - they belong to the print world, which off course is still there for older material, books etc..
The negative scenario is, that the commercial publishers - due to the fact that libraries has not managed to change their operations - has discovered the opportunities to offer personalized services to end users.
Services that are better, cheaper and faster. From the users point of view that is not necessary a negative scenario!! But a lot of libraries will be bypassed - will be more or less out of business.
We have still the opportunities to choose ourselves. But this will require a more holistic management approach, cooperation from the staff and visionary national library authorities as well as a reconsideration of the economic rationale of library cooperation.